The Closet

DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley's closet with Shawn's leather jacket hanging alone

I am a minimalist. So was Shawn. We both hated stuff, and made sure to clear out anything that wasn’t being used frequently. In fact, a friend came over the other day after I cleaned and jokingly asked, “what happened? Did you get robbed?” I laughed. Shawn would have been proud.

My kids know that I am likely to get rid of any and all clutter and they are pretty used to it, but they frequently worry that I might “lose” something of theirs. For example, the other day at a party, Claire came up to me, handed me something and started to run off. But then she paused, turned to me and said, “Mom, don’t throw it away. I know you always do that.”

Busted.

Anyway, I had a free day yesterday and I decided it was time to do a thorough spring cleaning. I made a list of all of the things that I wanted to clean out: our kitchen drawers, my file cabinet, the back garage, and so on. I walked through the house to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. And then I realized that there was a glaring omission.

My closet. Cleaning it out has been on my to-do list forever. Of course, it’s not just my clothes that need to be combed through. There are also Shawn’s clothes in there.

To be fair, I cleaned out the majority of his clothes and other things in the first few weeks after he died. I made my friends clear out all the medicine and medical equipment, because I just couldn’t do that. I also got rid of a lot of extraneous things that just made me sad (like his eye mask and toothbrush.) Then, about a month after Shawn died, my sister came and we cleaned out many of his clothes. I had a breakdown part-way through that process, and I decided there were just some things I wasn’t ready to part with. So I kept an entire rack of hanging clothes and another two baskets of t-shirts and other things like that.

And that’s how it’s been for 15 months. His clothes hang in the closet like he might return at any moment and need a 90s-grunge-band t-shirt for a party in our backyard.

It gave me comfort to have his things. But it also made me feel a bit stuck. I couldn’t really reclaim the space with his stuff taking up a big chunk of the closet. So a few months ago I decided that I was going to clean out the closet. I was just waiting for a free afternoon.

But yesterday, when that time arrived, I stalled. I cleaned out every single drawer I could find in the kitchen and I reorganized the shoes on the back porch. I knew I was ready to clean out my closet and I knew I wanted to clean out my closet. But I also knew it was going to be really hard.

I went upstairs, and looked at Shawn’s clothes. And then I was crying – actually, I was falling-on-the-floor sobbing. I let myself just feel sad for a really, really long time.

God, I miss him. It’s been so long – 15 months – and yet I still have times when I miss Shawn with an intensity that surprises me. I thought, somehow, that these emotional breakdowns would ease as time passed, but now I’m realizing that I might be 10 years down the road, I might even be remarried to some handsome stranger, and I’ll STILL have moments when I miss Shawn as though I just lost him. I’ve heard this from other widows who are farther out than me. But it’s been surprising to experience it myself.

I guess that’s why cleaning out his things from my closet is just as difficult as it was over a year ago.

But I was determined to do it. I needed the space to be my own again.

I took a deep breath and scrolled through Spotify to find the best music to listen to. For some reason, I felt like Pearl Jam was the most appropriate. I set it to “shuffle” and headed to the closet.

The first song that played was “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.”

I almost quit right then.

The song took me back to 2002. Shawn and I had been dating for a few weeks, and he was playing in an ex-pat band in Japan. One night, they performed downtown in our small Japanese town. Shawn mostly played backup guitar, but that night he sang one song. It was “Elderly Woman.”

It was like I was right back there. Do you know what I remember about that night? That he sang the entire song to me. He looked at the strings of his guitar a little bit, but then he’d look right back at me as he kept singing.

I had never felt so loved. I’m not sure if he’d even told me that he loved me at that point, but I knew it then. I knew I loved him too.

Later that night, someone teased me, “Marjorie, I looked at your face when Shawn was singing. You really have it bad for him, don’t you?”

That memory – it felt like it was a million years ago. And it also felt like it was just yesterday.

I sat back down on the floor of the closet and thought about that night in Japan. I cried through the entire song and then I played it again. How is he gone? Yes, I miss the father of my children and I miss having someone around who was so smart. But really, what I miss is the way he looked at me in those moments, like the one back in Japan. Like the sun shot right out of me.

I let myself stay in that moment in Japan for a long time. But finally, I picked myself off of the ground and started taking things off of the hangers. One pile to donate, one pile to keep. I put a few of his t-shirts with mine, so I could wear them in moments when I needed them. But all the suits and coats and everything else went in one of the other piles.

I went to move his leather jacket and paused. I couldn’t do it. I bought that leather jacket for him years ago and he loved it – he wore it every single time we went out. And he looked hot in it.

So I left it there. It felt appropriate. Like he was there, with me, reminding me of what we once had.

But also letting me have a bit more space for myself.

15 Replies to “The Closet”

  1. I cleaned out my husband’s closet pretty soon after he died. Most of the things in there were loose fitting items like sweatpants and sweatshirts that he wore to hide the fact that he’d lost a lot of weight (he was thin to begin with and could ill afford to lose even a little.) All of those clothes reflected the painful months of his illness and I had no qualms about donating them to the Goodwill. What I did end up keeping was a time worn lightweight jacket that he’d had forever and wore when he was gardening. It still hangs in its usual place in the broom closet in the kitchen where I see it every day. Sometimes I pick up the sleeve and give the cuff a kiss. Also, I kept his baseball caps in the same place where they’ve always hung on hooks in the laundry room. He would grab one and put it on as he was going out the door to the garage. Every time I come home through that I door I’m greeted by them and it’s kind of reassuring—like he’s still there and is just in another part of the house.

    If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend the “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” episode with the widow who needs help cleaning out her husband’s things. At that point it had been nine months since his death and she was feeling overwhelmed. I cried through the whole thing but it does have an uplifting ending that made it worthwhile.

    1. Oh, yes….I’m an old Marie Kondo fan! Though I didn’t like the episode with the widow – it felt too perfectly wrapped up, like she was happy after the tidying. And I know it’s messier than that to get over grief.

  2. My husband was killed in an accident 18 months ago. I can relate to how you feel. I moved on some of his stuff about a year after he died but I still have his dressing gown hanging behind the bedroom door where he left it. On bad days I hug it to me and use it to dry my tears. I’m not ready to move that out of my life yet….and maybe I won’t. Sometimes it’s hard being strong but it’s good to hear that somebody else feels the same way. Thanks.

    1. Yes and I think that we can keep around the things that make us feel connected to the person we lost without having to keep everything – your dressing gown example is proof of that. I’m holding on to Shawn’s leather jacket forever.

  3. After a year or so I cleaned out his closet. All of his basement things, and there were lots… I waited 5 years. In fact, I hired an organizing, decluttering professional to help me. My sister was there for moral support. Thank goodness I didn’t have a forced time line. While cleaning out the basement, we found a sizable amount in savings bonds. I think it was a sign!! 😊 I kept a few treasured items.
    When it comes to grief, move at your own pace and your own timeline.

    1. Wow – that IS a good sign! I think you have to do these things on your own timeline – that’s why it’s taken me 15 months. But it felt right this weekend.

  4. Yep, ten years into this widow thing and there are still overwhelming crying breakdown moments. I am finally getting serious about selling our house which means a lot of cleaning and decluttering. And also going through items that belonged to my husband. Then there’s the fact that getting a house ready to sell is a ton of work, getting repair bids, and expensive. Then the anger comes in-like why am I alone and doing this by myself. I made dinner plans with my teenage son recently and then started sobbing because I really wanted to be making dinner plans with my husband. On the bright side, my children are happy to receive all the little pieces of their dad’s life, so I am not having the guilt of throwing his things away. And dinner with my son was just as enjoyable as being with his dad!

    1. Yes, selling a home is so difficult even when things are going well! Good luck with all of it. I hate that we have to do these things alone, but I love that you have your kids to help you through it.

  5. My wife, Stephanie, died February 15, 2018, which is 14 months ago. I can relate to, “And then I was crying – actually, I was falling-on-the-floor sobbing. I let myself just feel sad for a really, really long time.” I am going to join a group to talk with other widows and widowers, so that I can learn from them and gauge how I’m doing.

    1. Joining a grief group was the best thing I did. I actually joined a couple of them before I settled on one that I really liked. It helped so much to have a place to process with other people who felt the same way I did.

  6. I’ve just finished reading this over the lunch-time din in my grade 8 classroom, and found myself thinking about to our days at Queen’s and I am suddenly missing Brims intensely. Your words and that jacket just hit me, I guess.

    I’ve written to you before about how he pushed me out of my musical comfort zone to first play guitar in front of others. He’s really the reason I’m in a band to this day.

    So please know that as the kids were packing up their bags at the bell a minute ago, I scooped my acoustic guitar (always on the stand by my desk … the now-battered monster I used at that party over 20 years ago) and played “Elderly Woman” for you guys. Hoping you felt it … and that he did too. 🙂

    1. Oh, I LOVE THIS. So sweet for you to play for your class. I can imagine it….and yes, I think he felt it!

  7. Here I was getting mad at myself for looking at piles and piles of half sorted clothes and belongings clogging up my bedroom and closet and the bench downstairs and the corner of the living room, to be honest. It’s been 7 months +/- for me. I feel guilty because I started dating someone new but at the same time, I just can’t give the clothes away…. Thank you for your stories. They are helping me get some realistic perspective on what I can and can’t do. Even though everyone says there is no timeline, it always feels like there is and I’m way overdue.

    1. Oh, there is NO TIMELINE. For anything. Dating, emptying out closets, stopping crying. It’s all overlapping and messy and….that’s part of being a widow. Thanks for your kind words. I write as true as I can.

  8. […] shirts, certain that I’d do something meaningful with them.  I never did.  Even after I cleaned out his side of the closet and added even more clothes to the box, I felt paralyzed about what to do.  Then, out of […]

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